WNBA rookies work on their game faces

I’ve never thought of myself as naïve. I mean, I am as adept at the art of denial as the next lesbian, but sometimes homophobia just slaps me in the face. Last week, for example, as I was searching for tidbits for my post on the WNBA, I came across a Chicago Tribune report from Rookie Camp.

At first glance, you may think Allie Quigley, Crystal Kelly and Jolene Anderson are concentrating on an innovative play or a confusing rule. But the playbook they’re discussing is not about basketball; it’s about putting on your game face – literally. Yep, about a third of this year’s two-day WNBA rookie orientation was devoted to makeup, hairstyle and fashion tips. All together now, “Ugh.”

I know I’m a hypocrite. I think women basketball players are hot and part of my enjoyment of the game comes from that. But what makes them hot to me is their athleticism and the strength and passion they display when they play the game. I’ve seen Sheryl Swoopes up close and personal when she’s decked out for a fundraiser and when she’s covered in sweat after a game. I’d choose perspiration over foundation any day.

AfterEllen.com blogger Ms.Anthrope pointed out the similarity to A League of Their Own, in which the Rockford Peaches were subjected to Ellie Weingardt’s charm lessons. Yes, that scene was based on reality, but have we progressed so little since the ‘40s?

Apparently not: According to WNBA president Donna Orender, the reason for teaching the rookies how to look good is as plain as the blush on your face. “It’s all contributing to how to be a professional,” she told the Tribune. “I do believe there’s more focus on a woman’s physical appearance. Men are straight out accepted for their athletic ability. That’s reality. I think it’s true in every aspect of the work force. This is all about a broader-based education.” Sure, if by “education” you mean “bottom line.” The popularity of the WNBA is growing – and apparently, the league perceives that marketing the players themselves as much as their playing skills will boost interest. Enter Candace Parker.

Parker may be the best player the women’s game has ever seen. She’s also gorgeous – and straight. Don’t think for a minute that the WNBA isn’t taking full advantage of those facts. Even Michael Cooper, coach of Parker’s team the L.A. Sparks, thinks that the seven-fold increase in season ticket sales this season is due to Parker. “She’s already changed the interest in the WNBA,” he said. “Hopefully we can get some of those single guys who only watch the NBA to come watch the WNBA.” I don’t think he’s talking about Parker’s basketball skills.

Sports psychologist Susan Ziegler sums up how I feel about marketing the appearance of the players rather than their ability. “No. 1 is, of course, the need for the image of the WNBA to be seen as real women,” she said to the Trib. “That comes from the lesbian homophobia that surrounds women in sports in general. Once you begin to worry about how the person looks as opposed to how she plays, you’ve crossed the line into dangerous play. We’re not really focused on marketing them as athletes but as feminine objects.” Straight feminine objects, to be exact.

Parker is the WNBA’s dream-come-true because she is very femme – and very heterosexual. Case in point: a photo of Parker and her fiancée, Shelden Williams of the Sacramento Kings, even was included in the official 2008 WNBA Draft Portraits. No other significant others appeared (nor have they ever, to my knowledge.)

Will sexing up the WNBA convince men to watch? I don’t think so. The fact is that men I know who follow the league now talk about enjoying the game. They often are surprised at how good it is. Men who refuse to watch it also do so based on the game. They’d rather watch above-the-rim basketball. I have never heard a man mention the appearance of the players, pro or con. If anything, focusing on looks will only prove that the WNBA isn’t a serious sports league.

I admit I’m sensitive to sexism right now. The way Hillary was treated has left me a bit raw. Am I overreacting? Is the WNBA justified in requiring its players to be more feminine? Or is a hair and makeup class as demeaning to professional athletes as it would be in other professional settings? What do you think?

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